Work to begin on removal of controversial Martin Luther King Memorial inscription


In this Jan. 15 2012, file photo, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial stands in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Work to remove the controversial “Drum Major” inscription on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will begin Monday, the National Park Service said Friday.

Spokeswoman Carol Bradley Johnson said that the initial work will be putting up scaffolding and that the actual removal of the inscription will begin later in the month, after Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin arrives.

Plans call for the work to be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington, Aug. 28.

In December, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the plan to remove the inscription to try to end an uproar over the wording, which critics said made King sound arrogant.

The dispute pitted those who said the carving grossly misrepresented King’s thoughts against the memorial’s designers and advisers, who said it was accurate and artistic.

The Interior Department, which had previously said the inscription would be replaced, decided it should be removed to protect the “structural integrity” of the three-story-high statue.

The work is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000 and will be paid for through a special fund created by the memorial foundation and turned over to the National Park Service for maintenance.

The inscription in question comes from a sermon King delivered two months before he was assassinated in 1968.

Speaking to the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, King critiqued what he called the egotistical “drum major instinct,” evoking the image of a showboat who leads a parade. Imagining his own eulogy, King said he wanted to be remembered for a higher purpose.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

But that was distilled to the inscription on the north face of the memorial’s statue: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. It was designed to match an equally brief inscription on the south face: Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Anger and dismay over the truncated version grew after Rachel Manteuffel wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post drawing attention to the abridgment. Poet and author Maya Angelou said it made King sound like an “arrogant twit.”

Dedicated in 2011 and carved by Lei, the memorial sits on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin, southeast of the National World War II Memorial.

The plan is to cut out the inscription to make it look like one of the horizontal striations already in the memorial.

The striations, or “horizontal movement lines,” are designed to make the statue look like it has been pulled from the granite mountain that forms its background.

But the inscription’s removal will cut deeper into the stone than the existing striations, which will probably have to be gouged deeper to match.

“The task before us is not as simple as one would imagine,” Ed Jackson Jr., the executive architect for the memorial’s construction, said Friday. “That being said, there is only one goal: to accomplish our task without compromising the integrity and quality of the . . . design and artwork of the sculptor.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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